Sarkisian AWOL, then on a LOA

USC's 2nd-year coach 'not healthy,' AD Pat Haden said after Haden talked to him when he missed practice Sunday and asked Sark to take a leave of absence while naming Clay Helton to his 2nd stint as interim USC head coach.

And so it goes as many of us thought it must. Probably couldn't go any other way, to be honest, after the Salute to Troy debacle Aug. 22. And yet it was still an absolutely stunning development Sunday.

Steve Sarkisian was a no-show on the practice field for USC's 12:30 workout as a number of rumors were hitting that he'd shown up earlier and was determined by the staff to be in no shape to continue. There was a report of Sarkisian starting a team meeting with now-interim head coach Clay Helton having to finish it.

Whatever, the crucial timing and decision came after AD Pat Haden was informed, some time after 1 p.m. at Galen Center where he was attending the preseason basketball scrimmages, that his head coach was a no-show. Associate AD J.K. McKay told him and Pat left immediately for Howard Jones-Brian Kennedy Fields across campus.

"This has all kind of happened very quickly," Haden said at a media conference some 45 minutes after practice and after he'd addressed the USC team in a meeting after the hour and 20 minute practice. "I was over at basketball, the opening basketball thing. I got a call that Coach Sarkisian wasn’t at practice. I just learned about this about 1 o’clock.

"I called Steve. I talked to him. It was very clear to me that he is not healthy," Haden said. "I asked him to take an indefinite leave of absence, and Clay Helton will serve as our interim head coach. Clay is undefeated as our head coach, as you know."

Maybe meant as a laugh line to break the tension but that wasn't happening. This was serious stuff. For a point of perspective, Helton becomes USC's fifth head coach in the last 29 games, Georgia has had just six head coaches in the last 76 years.

And for the first time in the long and storied history of the USC-Notre Dame rivalry, Saturday's game (4:30 p.m. PT, NBC) will mark the first time in the history of the series that USC will have had four different head coaches in four years.

"I think it’s the right thing for our team," Haden said. "I’ve got to always do what’s right for our team and our school. I then spoke with our coaches and team. It was clear the team had a great deal of concern about the health of Coach Sarkisian. So did the staff have a concern for him."

But there was something else clear to him, Haden said. "It was also very apparent to me in the room of the support that Clay has from our team and his staff."

Helton, as noted, is "undefeated" in leading USC to a Las Vegas Bowl romp over Fresno State in 2013 after then interim head coach Ed Orgeron resigned when Haden hired Sarkisian over him at the end of that season after the team had gone 6-2 under Orgeron after the Lane Kiffin midseason firing.

Haden continued: "Big task this week. We play Notre Dame. It’s not going to be easy. Clay’s going to do a great job of getting our team ready and focused for that game. I don’t have a lot of answers for you guys. I know you’re going to want to ask me a bunch of questions, but I learned about this about an hour and 15 minutes ago, and that’s all I’ve got.

Question as Haden got up from the table: "What made you determine he was not in condition to keep coaching?"

"Uh, it was apparent to me," Haden said then exiting after his promise to answer no questions.

Helton, the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach who took over playcalling duties from Sark this season, then took over: "One, thank you to Mr. Haden for the opportunity to be the interim head coach again at the university. It’s a very unique honor.

" Fortunately or unfortunately, I have been in this situation before. Once again, I’m very fortunate to have a group of first-class kids that are extremely talented and want to do something special here. There are still a lot of things out there that we can attain.

"We have a big game vs. Notre Dame this week [and] the opportunity to still compete for the South championship in the Pac-12. Again, I’m very fortunate to have a group around me as staff that’s as first-class as they get."

Helton, 43 and in his sixth season as a USC assistant, then went back to his 2013 experience: "We’ll take the same approach as the last time we were in this. It’s all about the kids, and it’s all about the Trojan Family, and that is it. What is best for the kids – coaching them as hard as we physically, possibly can as a coaching staff preparing them each and every day to try to go out and compete against the best of the best and to make sure that they’re well taken care of.

"Again, I thank Coach Haden for the opportunity to do this, and we will do our utmost to make the Trojan Family proud."

And that was it. The now the unranked Trojans, 3-2 (1-2 in the Pac-12), who were ranked as high as No. 6 in the nation before the Stanford loss, find themselves headed to South Bend against the 14th-ranked Irish (5-1) with five points this week in the A.P. poll, good for a 33rd-place tie with Western Kentucky.

Why this was a surprise here at USC is equally a surprise for those who thought Sarkisian needed to take his leave after his drunken display in front of 2,500 USC family, fans and players at the annual preseason get-together to kick off the season.

Sark had attributed the foul-mouthed and slurred-speech performance that saw him ushered off the stage mercifully by McKay to a combination of meds and alcohol. And there were reports -- without specifics -- of counseling to follow. But the two Pac-12 home losses were hard to take.

In the 41-31 Stanford upset, the then sixth-ranked Trojans had a defensive meltdown. In the 17-12 loss to a young and not very talented Washington team Thursday, USC's offense was a no-show.

And it truth be told, Sark sounded shaky in his Friday coach's conference call to go over the Washington game and the loss to his old team and the coach, Chris Petersen, who replaced him there. With the USC team off Friday and Saturday, the word was the coaches would be out recruiting.

Not an easy chore after Thursday's loss. And what happened between then and now to Sark and his health, we may never know. Just that he was no longer good to go.

And now is gone. As he probably should have been back in late August. From the health of this USC football program and the man who was its head coach, that would have probably been the way to go then.

Now, it's hard to say although if you took a poll among those close to the program, you'd hve to say that there are few who think that Sarkisian will ever be back to coach this team.

CHECK THIS OUT: For today's practice report, check out SUNDAY SARKLESS ND WEEK GHOST NOTES.

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